uro 2020 was blown wide open as favourites France were undone and dumped out by the baffling, brilliant fight of Switzerland which saw them earn a penalty shootout win and passage through to the last eight.
This evening in Bucharest served to highlight the folly of anointing favourites. France had already won this tournament in the mind of so many – including this writer – by a distance before a ball was kicked, only to be consumed by the beautiful brilliance of tournament football.
Whether their implosion was anxiety or arrogance it was hard to tell, but it was spectacular viewing nonetheless and will have other top nations sat wide-eyed as they look down the line to Wembley. A route clear of France after their exit was sealed by the star most hopes were pinned upon, Kylian Mbappe.
The forward was scaring the Swiss early on with driving runs down the left, but they held out to deliver a startle of their own.
Steven Zuber collected the ball on the left from Haris Seferovic, ran at Benjamin Pavard and lifted an inviting ball into the centre of the France box. Despite Les Bleus’ three central defenders, Seferovic nudged a sloppy Clement Lenglet out of his way and steered a wonderful header into the bottom corner.
Deschamps’s reshuffled side, starting with a back three, looked ruffled and were playing within themselves.
The shape had shackled the favourites, but their attitude was miles off, too. Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, undefeated starting together for France, were giving Granit Xhaka and his compatriots the run of midfield.
Deschamps discarded the back three and Lenglet for a four and Kingsley Coman at the break but still the same pattern continued.
Again it was Zuber vs Pavard and, again, Zuber came out on top – with a helping hand from VAR. The Swiss wing-back charged his French counterpart and was hacked down. Appeals were initially waved away before the VAR review brought a penalty, though the night was turned as Hugo Lloris dived to save from Ricardo Rodriguez’s tame effort.
Within a minute, Karim Benzema made it click with the most audacious and brilliant touch to bring France to life.
The striker managed to summon Mbappe’s ball from well back in his stride, off the turf and into his path with one magical flick before dinking it past Yann Sommer.
Four minutes on from Lloris’ penalty save, the tie was well and truly turned on its head.
Antoine Griezmann collected Mbappe’s back-heel and clipped towards the far post where – again – Benzema was waiting to head home.
From there on everything was perfectly arranged around the Real Madrid striker, who had emerged as the missing piece to bring it all together and lift others to new levels.
Pogba, a passenger in the first half and without an international goal since the World Cup Final in 2018, decided to claim a bit of the action for himself with a touch almost as magnificent, but all the more emphatic, as Benzema’s to score the third.
The Manchester United midfielder, always streets better with his country, collected a loose ball and sent a delicious, curling effort into the top corner.
France were purring and in their prime, then stopped altogether.
Just as the side awaiting them in the last eight, Spain, had collapsed from 3-1 down earlier in the day, the favourites followed suit, cracking under the pressure of a resurgent and courageous Swiss team.
Seferovic was again allowed to slide through the French defence unnoticed to meet Kevin Mbabu’s cross and put the frighteners on the favourites. They were more than frightened, too.
Mario Gavranovic saw an emotional equaliser chalked off for offside, but he was not done there.
With seconds of normal time left, and France spread wide all over the shop instead of sitting on their lead, Arsenal’s Xhaka – who exploded into life after Pogba’s goal, seemingly taking it personally – split the world champions with one ball and sent Gavranovic through. The substitute checked inside Presnel Kimpembe, the PSG man left on the floor, and rifled into the bottom corner.
France had been given 90 minutes to show what they were made of, and used just 30 of them. Switzerland took almost every chance that came their way, just passing up the most glaring one.
For the second time in two exhausting and exhilarating games, we moved into extra time. France lost Benzema and were struggling to regain their composure as Xhaka’s influence only grew.
Kante and Pogba went in search of the initiative once more and the former played in Mbappe, who raced through on goal but skewed into the side netting before Giroud saw his late header saved and penalties beckoned.
Switzerland had never won a penalty shootout at a major tournament before, but this has been a summer for firsts for many of the nations involved.
They put the pressure on by going, and scoring, first, though Pogba responded by cracking his penalty into the top corner.
Both sides exchanged confident spot-kicks all the way until Mbappe, below par on the night, had to score at 5-4 but stepped up and was stopped. Stunned.
France now head home, a myriad of questions engulfing Deschamps and his well of talent. For Switzerland, Spain await in Saint Petersburg, where we can only hope that the chaos continues.